House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA), after an illustrious 32-year career as a Congressional reformer and skilled legislative tactician, recently announced his retirement at the end of this Congress. This naturally prompted speculation as to who would replace him is the leader of the panel. Politico titled its article “David Dreier exit triggers leadership scramble”.  Roll Call was similar: “Dreier Retirement Sets of Scramble for Rules Gavel”. Intrigue is in the air!

Actually, those headlines are a bit overstated. Another Roll Call headline might be more appropriate: “No Rush to Succeed Dreier as Rules Chairman”. National Journal‘s understated headline is most apt: “Rep. Dreier to Retire”. Less than 50 years ago, reporters wouldn’t have written headlines like that. At some points in history, it would not have mattered who filled the position, and, at others, there would not have been a struggle or scramble. Additionally, the history of the chairmanship suggests that it is not a precursor to higher office.

The Rules Committee is the House’s traffic cop.  In fact, it is fair to say that one cannot understand the modern House of Representatives unless he understands the role of the Rules Committee. The House is a majoritarian institution designed to allow a majority to work its will. The majority leadership controls the House through the Rules Committee. The majority party, which dominates the Rules Committee, can refuse to forward to the floor any measure the party in power opposes.

After legislation is approved in one of the House’s twenty standing committees, it is referred to the Rules Committee, which will adopt a special rule that defines how long the bill will be debated, how long Members will be allowed to speak, what amendments may be considered and how long amendments will be debated, as well as whether points of order under the rules of the House will be waived to accommodate immediate consideration.  In short, the Speaker has absolute and total control of the Rules Committee and therefore everything that happens on the House floor. The autonomy of the Rules Committee has ebbed and flowed during the history of the House, but since the 1970s it has become the main tool the Speaker uses to control how legislation is considered by the full House.

For significant periods in House history, the Rules Committee was actually relatively unimportant. (According to historian Christopher Davis, from 1817-1828, the Speaker did not even assign Members to the Committee.) A standing committee with jurisdiction over the Rules was not created until 1880. Since then, control of Rules has been essential to control of the House. About 10 years after the Committee’s modern creation, the famous Speaker Thomas “Czar” Reed started using it to block obstructionist tactics and allow the House majority to enact its agenda.  Until 1910, the Speakers themselves chaired the Rules Committee and selected the Members who would serve with them. Speaker Joseph Cannon was the last to sit on the panel. Unlike Reed who used the Rules Committee to get things done, Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon’s autocratic rule of the House led to an insurrection led by progressive Republicans and minority Democrats, who eventually ousted Cannon as Chairman in 1910.

The anti-Cannon forces were able to pass a new rule that forbid the Speaker from serving as Chairman and stripped him of his authority to appoint Members to House committees. Instead, the full House would vote on Committee assignments, a situation which favored the majority caucus. At the same time, chairmanships of committees were given to majority Members who had sat on the panel for longest, a practice known as the seniority system. Robert Remini, author of The House, the official history of the Lower Chamber, places this development around the early 20th century. Thus, following the defeat of Cannon, there was a clear chain of command, so there was little struggle for the top spot.

Although the seniority system theoretically eliminated friction in selecting the committee chairs, over time it exacerbated tensions among House Democrats, who controlled the Chamber almost continuously from 1931 until the end of 1994, with only two interruptions. During this time, the center of the Democratic Party shifted leftwards, but they were unable to enact more liberal legislation in the House. The seniority system allowed many long-serving Southern Democrats to secure plum positions of power as Committee Chairmen. These Chairmen were far more conservative than the rest of their party, and they used their considerable authority to halt legislation they detested, particularly on Civil Rights. One Southern Democrat, Rules Committee Chairman Howard “Judge” Smith, used his position to block consideration of Civil Rights legislation proposed by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, even though there were clear bipartisan majorities supporting these measures.

For a long time, there was little the Democratic majority could to do advance its agenda. According to Remini, Speaker Sam Rayburn, although a Southerner, was eager to support his party’s majority consensus on Civil Rights issues (and much else besides), but he did not want to launch an open attack on the Southern Democrats that would divide his party. At the same time, a liberal faction pressed for him to break the Southerners’ power. For many years, Rayburn resolved the tensions in his caucus by using his own charisma to win support, rather than enacting major House reform. Chairman Smith, however, was so intransigently opposed to granting rules for consideration of President Kennedy’s legislation that, in January 1961, Speaker Rayburn ultimately decided to press forward enacting a rule to increase the size of the Rules Committee, which would allow him to weaken conservative power.

Despite Speaker Rayburn’s success-one of his last and one of his greatest-this only expanded the Committee, giving the Democrats a liberal majority, but it did nothing to undercut the seniority system or the Chairman’s formal authority. When Chairman Smith was eventually defeated in 1966, another Southern Democrat, William Colmer, succeeded him. Although Chairman Colmer was eligible for the position by virtue of his seniority, to secure his position, he was forced to agree to a set of Committee rules that limited his power. It was a compromise between the older seniority system and the newer reforms the liberalizers advocated.

With Colmer’s concession, the power of the Rules Committee Chairman to resist the majority was weakened, but not ended. Subsequent developments, however, further eroded the Chairman’s independence. Over the years, reformers-in both parties-continued to hack away at the seniority system. Aging committee Chairmen were criticized not only for their political views but also for senility and incapacity to govern. Op-ed pieces and interviews on the subject from the time make for sometimes humorous reading.

The seniority system was formally ended in January 1973 when the Democratic Caucus voted that the assignment of chairmanships should be subject to approval by a vote of the Caucus. Speaker Carl Albert, who replaced Speaker John McCormack in 1971, gained for himself and his successors the power to to personally appoint the Chairman and each Member of the Rules Committee with a 2:1 + 1 majority (9-4).  The Rules Committee had once again become the “Speaker’s Committee,” though the Speaker is still prohibited from personally serving on the Rules Committee. Two decades later, when the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Speaker Newt Gingrich also secured for himself the power to name the Rules Committee. Today, according to the “Rules of the House Republican Conference”, the Speaker handpicks the Members and Chairman of the House Rules Committee, subject to the approval of the rest of the Conference.

Since the Chairman depends on the Speaker for his authority, the question then becomes: Does it matter who is installed? In fact it does, since the Speaker requires a close personal ally and skilled legislative tactician to manage the minefields associated with bringing legislation to the House floor. The role essentially requires three main qualities. Two are closely related:  a deep understanding of the standing rules and traditions of the House and the ability to use that knowledge to find solutions to the procedural problems of the majority and anticipate the tactics of the minority. The third requisite is complete and unquestioned loyalty to the Speaker-always expect the Rules Chairman to completely support the Speaker’s agenda.. There is leeway for an individual to make his or her individual mark. In his speech announcing his retirement, Chairman Dreier said that he considered leaving Congress before, but desired to stay on “to ensure, through the Rules Committee, that both Democrats and Republicans have the opportunity to offer their solutions by proposing amendments on the House floor.” As the former vice-chair of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress in the early 1990s, Dreier has long tried to influence the quality of debate and legislative flow. Speaker John Boehner has frequently pledged parliamentary openness as well, which is one of the reasons Boehner entrusted the Committee to Dreier.  Look for Dreier’s successor to share similar principles on the openness of floor procedures.

Although any Member chosen to lead the Rules Committee would be a close ally of the Speaker, but such an “honor” does not necessarily lead to higher office.  First of all, very few people in the nation have any idea of the power of the Rules Committee, and as a result know very little about its chairman.  Also, since the Rules Committee does not originate legislation (excepting bills regulating election law), being its chair is not seen as particularly beneficial to anyone but the most informed constituents back home.

After Speaker Cannon’s fall, Chairmen have had little success in rising up higher. The last Speaker that chaired the Committee was Representative William Bankhead who led Rules in 1934 and 1935 and then the full House from 1936 until his death in 1940. One Chairman, Representative Bertrand Snell of New York, became the Minority Leader when the Republicans lost control of the House in 1931. No Chairman has served as chief party Whip. Representative Richard Bolling, a liberal reformer of the 1960s and 1970s, was Chairman of the Committee, but only after he lost a bid to be the Majority Leader in 1977. A Member desiring to lead the House in the future would be better served in another position.  The chairmanship of the Rules Committee is more like the crowning achievement of a Congressional insider than a steppingstone to higher office. (A list of the Chairmen of the Rules Committee is available here. A list of the Speakers of the House is available here.)

The chairmanship of the Committee on Rules is crucial to governing the House. As Chairman Dreier suggested, the just exercise of the office can foster much-needed debate and disperse the legislative power by allowing amendments on the Floor. By all accounts, Chairman Dreier has been gracious and skilled in his leadership. The Congressional Institute wishes him well.

Works Consulted

Remini, Robert. The House: The History of the House of Representatives. New York: HaperCollins-Smithsonian, 2006.

Davis, Christopher M. “The Speaker of the House and the Committee on Rules” in The Cannon Centenary Conference: The Changing Nature of the Speakership. United States. Cong. H. Doc. 108-204. Cong. Bill. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 2004. Print.